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article imageFort McMurray homecoming set for June

By Michel Comte (AFP)     May 18, 2016 in World

Tens of thousands of evacuees from the wildfire-ravaged Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray received word Wednesday that they can return home next month if conditions are favorable.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told a televised press conference that re-entry would start on June 1 and wrap up by June 15.

"Many hazards remain in Fort McMurray," Notley said. "We need to address all of them before it is safe for residents to begin to return, and we are doing this."

But she added, many of the conditions needed to be met "are beyond human control."

"If conditions change, as they did just this week, the voluntary re-entry may begin later than June 1," she said.

Some 100,000 residents and oil workers were evacuated from Fort McMurray and its surroundings two weeks ago, as the flames advanced.

They took refuge in nearby villages, indigenous communities, campsites and at emergency shelters in Calgary and Edmonton.

Firefighters had beaten back the blaze as temperatures cooled last week, but a recent uptick in winds and heat reinvigorated the massive forest fire, which has nearly doubled in size since Monday.

Thick smoke also hindered efforts to restore basic services and utilities in the city.

Now, officials say rain in the forecast over the coming days should weaken the fire, which has grown to more than 423,000 hectares.

In her update, Notley said electricity, gas and water have been mostly restored, although a boil water advisory would remain in effect.

A new plan -- after the first one was derailed -- to reopen retail outlets such as grocery stores in order to serve residents upon their return is also being considered.

And it is hoped the city's hospital will be able to offer emergency medical care.

"To be clear," Notley said, "the community that residents will be returning to will have basic services. But full services may not be fully restored immediately."

Fire evacuees sift through donated clothing at an Emergency Relief Centre in Edmonton  Alberta on Ma...
Fire evacuees sift through donated clothing at an Emergency Relief Centre in Edmonton, Alberta on May 10, 2016
Cole Burston, AFP/File

"So residents who choose to return should plan to bring the things they need with them," she added, citing a long list that included medical prescriptions, nonperishable food and water for people and pets for up to seven days, rubber boots, a flash light, and a camera to document property damage for insurance claims.

A recent assessment of the damage in the city found most of its structures -- 89 percent -- are "safe to occupy," according to Notley.

Air pollution caused by the smoke has fallen to more acceptable levels but is "still very high," said Notley.

It had soared to more than three times safe levels in recent days, posing a risk to firefighters and delaying both repairs to damaged Fort McMurray infrastructure and the return of residents.

- Oil production at risk -

Hopes of soon restarting 1.2 million barrels of oil production per day, meanwhile, remain up in the air.

Late Monday, 8,000 workers were ordered out of the oil patch north of Fort McMurray as fires spread and intensified.

Charred vehicles and homes are pictured in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Fort McMurray  Alberta  ...
Charred vehicles and homes are pictured in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 9, 2016
Chris Wattie, Pool/AFP/File

The blaze destroyed a 665-room lodge housing oil workers.

Westerly winds, meanwhile, pushed the fire to the edge of major oil facilities operated by Suncor and Syncrude.

Officials described a wall of flames closing in on the facilities.

However, a large swath of land surrounding the facilities have been deforested to create a buffer against wildfires.

Suncor, Canada's largest petroleum company, was forced to shutter its base camp, which processes bitumen from two nearby mines.

Production at its MacKay River facility was also suspended.

The Canadian cutbacks have sent crude prices climbing towards the US$50 mark, by helping to reduce a global supply glut.

A burnt out pick up truck is seen in the driveway of a burnt down home in the Beacon Hill neighbourh...
A burnt out pick up truck is seen in the driveway of a burnt down home in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Monday, May 9, 2016
Jonathan Hayward, POOL/AFP/File

Since Tuesday, 12 new fires have started, bringing to 18 the total number burning in the province. Three are out of control, Notley said.

Cost estimates by the Conference Board of Canada predict the loss to the Canadian economy due to the temporary oil sands production shutdown will be 0.06 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The forecast released Tuesday, however, did not take into account this week's evacuations.

Other reports have suggested the hit could be as much as 0.5 percent, if the fires persist through the summer.

The oil sector accounts for four percent of Canada's GDP.

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